A Mauritian-chartered survey ship carrying Chagos Islanders exiled from their homeland by the UK government 50 years ago has left Seychelles bound for the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
The 1,130-mile voyage marks the first time Chagossians have been allowed to enter the remote archipelago – cleared of its entire population in the early 1970s to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia – without being under close British military escort.
The trip is going ahead amid a diplomatic face-off between the UK and Mauritius over ownership of the islands. By an overwhelming majority, the UN general assembly accepted in 2019 an opinion by the international court of justice that the Chagos Islands were unlawfully detached from Mauritius by the UK when it granted Mauritius independence in 1968.
The survey will measure the height of Blenheim Reef, one of the outlying Chagos islands, to obtain evidence for a separate hearing before the UN’s international law of the sea tribunal. The case involves a dispute over demarcating the seabed between Mauritius and the Maldives; the tribunal has ruled that the UK has no legitimate claims in the area.
The chartered vessel, Bleu De Nîmes, is a converted former British minesweeper. Onboard are five Chagossians who cannot return permanently to their homes. The head of the delegation is Mauritius’s ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Dharamchand Koonjul.
Prof Philippe Sands QC, the leading lawyer retained by Mauritius, is also on the vessel, as are journalists from the BBC, the Guardian, the Atlantic magazine and Mauritian media. There appear to have been attempts to muzzle publicity about the voyage. It will take up to five days from Seychelles. The trip was delayed because of a cyclone.
As Seychelles disappeared astern, Olivier Bancoult, who has taken a series of landmark cases in UK courts over Chagossians’ right to return to their native islands, said: “We are so excited to be travelling to our birthplace. In previous ‘heritage’ visits [supervised by UK officials], we have always been escorted by British policemen or the army. This time we will be much more free. It’s the first visit organised by the Mauritian government.
“I have brought the birth certificates of my mother and father and my family. I will celebrate my 58th birthday on 15 February. I left my beautiful island, Peros Banhos, when I was four years old. We used to live as one large family; it was paradise. I have spent [decades] in exile.
“I have never given up taking legal cases because I believe our struggle is a just cause. My dream is to be able to settle in my birthplace. The oldest survivor among our exiles is now 100 years old.”
Bancoult said he suspected that the treatment of the Chagossians amounted to racism. “The British government says it is in favour of human rights yet they make a difference between the treatment of Falkland Islanders, for example, and Chagossians,” he said. “Is it because we are black?”
On the quayside before departure, Sands told the Guardian: “I’m amazed. I was hired in 2010 when I was on holiday and got a call from the Mauritian prime minister. He wanted to devise a legal strategy for the return of the Chagos Islands.
“If you would have told me 10 years ago that Mauritius would win three international judgments [against the UK], I would not have been over-optimistic. If you’d said we would be travelling to Chagos in 2022, I’d have been astounded. I will believe it when we set foot on Blenheim Reef, Salomon and Peros Banhos Islands [in the Chagos].”
Originally the voyage was due to have started in the Maldives, which is only 500 miles away – a one-and-a-half day trip, as opposed to the five days required from Seychelles.
Sands explained: “Early in December, Mauritius informed the UK that it would be visiting the Chagos archipelago, to follow up a case before the international law of the sea tribunal. It asked for confirmation from the UK that it would not impede the visit.
“The Mauritius government made clear that if that information was not received by 20 December, it would start fresh proceedings against the UK. The UK blinked and sent a note back saying they would not impede the voyage.
“The Maldives initially said it would have no problems with the trip but then informed Mauritius that it would exercise a right of veto over the delegation and made it clear that journalists would not be permitted. One can assume that the UK had a role in encouraging the Maldives to take steps to limit who participated.”
Sands believes the UK’s hardline resistance is partially because it fears that handing over the BIOT would set a precedent for the loss of the Falklands and Gibraltar. “But there’s no other UK [territory] that involves a case of [territorial] dismemberment [before independence],” he said.
As the ship left, the ambassador Koonjul said: “Our relations with the UK have always remained excellent. We agree to disagree. But we don’t understand how the UK can still claim morally and legally that this is their territory.”
Australia election: Why is Australia’s parliament so white?
With this year’s election, political parties did have a window to slightly improve this. But they chose not to in most cases, critics say.
Tu Le grew up the child of Vietnamese refugees in Fowler, a south-west Sydney electorate far from the city’s beaches, and one of the poorest urban areas in the country.
The 30-year-old works as a community lawyer for refugees and migrants newly arrived to the area.
Last year, she was pre-selected by the Labor Party to run in the nation’s most multicultural seat. But then party bosses side-lined her for a white woman.
It would take Kristina Kenneally four hours on public transport – ferry, train, bus, and another bus – to get to Fowler from her home in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, where she lived on an island.
Furious locals questioned what ties she had to the area, but as one of Labor’s most prominent politicians, she was granted the traditionally Labor-voting seat.
Ms Le only learned she’d been replaced on the night newspapers went to print with the story.
“I was conveniently left off the invitation to the party meeting the next day,” she told the BBC.
Despite backlash – including a Facebook group where locals campaigned to stop Ms Kenneally’s appointment – Labor pushed through the deal.
“If this scenario had played out in Britain or the United States, it would not be acceptable,” says Dr Tim Soutphomassane, director of the Sydney Policy Lab and Australia’s former Race Discrimination Commissioner.
“But in Australia, there is a sense that you can still maintain the status quo with very limited social and political consequences.”
An insiders’ game
At least one in five Australians have a non-European background and speak a language at home other than English, according to the last census in 2016.
Some 49% of the population was born or has a parent who was born overseas. In the past 20 years, migrants from Australia’s Asian neighbours have eclipsed those from the UK.
But the parliament looks almost as white as it did in the days of the “White Australia” policy – when from 1901 to the 1970s, the nation banned non-white immigrants.
“We simply do not see our multicultural character represented in anything remotely close to proportionate form in our political institutions,” says Dr Soutphomassane.
Compared to other Western multicultural democracies, Australia also lags far behind.
The numbers below include Indigenous Australians, who did not gain suffrage until the 1960s, and only saw their first lower house MP elected in 2010. Non-white candidates often acknowledge that any progress was first made by Aboriginal Australians.
Two decades ago, Australia and the UK had comparably low representation. But UK political parties – responding to campaigns from diverse members – pledged to act on the problem.
“The British Conservative Party is currently light years ahead of either of the major Australian political parties when it comes to race and representation,” says Dr Soutphomassane.
So why hasn’t Australia changed?
Observers say Australia’s political system is more closed-door than other democracies. Nearly all candidates chosen by the major parties tend to be members who’ve risen through the ranks. Often they’ve worked as staffers to existing MPs.
Ms Le said she’d have no way into the political class if she hadn’t been sponsored by Fowler’s retiring MP – a white, older male.
Labor has taken small structural steps recently – passing commitments in a state caucus last year, and selecting two Chinese-Australian candidates for winnable seats in Sydney.
But it was “one step forward and two steps back”, says party member and activist Osmond Chiu, when just weeks after the backlash to Ms Le’s case, Labor “parachuted in” another white candidate to a multicultural heartland.
Andrew Charlton, a former adviser to ex-PM Kevin Rudd, lived in a harbour mansion in Sydney’s east where he ran a consultancy.
His selection scuppered the anticipated races of at least three diverse candidates from the area which has large Indian and Chinese diasporas.
Party seniors argued that Ms Kenneally and Mr Charlton – as popular and respected party figures – would be able to promote their electorates’ concerns better than newcomers.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese also hailed Ms Kenneally as a “great Australian success story” as a migrant from the US herself.
But Mr Chiu says: “A lot of the frustration that people expressed wasn’t about these specific individuals.
“It was about the fact that these were two of the most multicultural seats in Australia and these opportunities – which come by so rarely – to select culturally diverse candidates were squandered.”
He adds this has long-term effects because the average MP stays in office for about 10 years.
The frustration on this issue has centred on Labor – because the centre-left party calls itself the “party of multiculturalism”.
But the Liberal-National government doesn’t even have diversity as a platform issue.
One of its MPs up for re-election recently appeared to confuse her Labor rival for Tu Le, sparking accusations that she’d mixed up the two Asian-Australian women – something she later denied. But as one opponent said: “How is this still happening in 2022?”
Some experts like Dr Soutphommasane have concluded that Australia’s complacency on areas like representation stems from how the nation embraced multiculturalism as official policy after its White Australia days.
The government of the 1970s, somewhat embarrassed by the past policy, passed racial discrimination laws and “a seat at the table” was granted to migrants and Indigenous Australians.
But critics say this has led to an Australia where multiculturalism is celebrated but racial inequality is not interrogated.
“Multiculturalism is almost apolitical in how it’s viewed in Australia,” Dr Soutphommasane says, in contrast to the “fight” for rights that other Western countries have seen from minority groups.
What is the impact?
A lack of representation in parliament can also lead to failures in policy.
During Sydney’s Covid outbreak in August 2021, Fowler and Parramatta electorates – where most of the city’s multicultural communities reside – were subject to harsher lockdowns as a result of a higher number of cases.
How will things change?
Liberal MP Dave Sharma, the only lawmaker of Indian heritage, has said all parties – including his own – should better recruit people with different backgrounds. He called it a “pretty laissez-faire attitude” currently.
Mr Albanese has urged Ms Le to “hang in there”, insisting she has a future.
But more people like Ms Le are choosing to speak out.
“I think I surprised a lot of people by not staying quiet,” she told the BBC.
“People acted like it was the end of my political career that I didn’t toe the party line. But… none of that means anything to me if it means I’m sacrificing my own values.”
She and other second-generation Australians – raised in a country which prides itself on “a fair go” – are agitating for the rights and access their migrant parents may not have felt entitled to.
“Many of those from diverse backgrounds were saying they felt like they didn’t have a voice – and that my case was a clear demonstration of their suppression, and their wider participation in our political system.”
She and others have noted the “growing distrust” in the major parties. Polls are predicting record voter support for independent candidates.
“This issue…. matters for everyone in Australian society that cares about democracy,” says Mr Soutphommasane.
“If democratic institutions are not representative, their legitimacy will suffer.
US military leader warns Chinese security deal with Solomon Islands sounds ‘too good to be true’
A senior US military general has warned during a visit to Australia that China’s offer to deepen security ties with Solomon Islands will come with strings attached, suggesting the Pacific island country may come to regret the planned deal.
“My parents told me if a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” the commandant of the United States Marine Corps, general David Berger, said on Wednesday.
Berger was cautious when asked about longstanding US concerns relating to a Chinese company’s lease over the port of Darwin, stressing it was a sovereign decision for Australia as part of its yet-to-be-completed national security review.
Ahead of a trip to Darwin, the site of increasing rotations of US Marines, Berger said: “If it’s not of concern to Australia, then it’s not of concern to me.”
Berger’s visit comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity by the US and Australia attempting to head off a proposed security agreement between China and Solomon Islands, which could allow regular visits by the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
A leaked draft from last month raised the possibility China could “make ship visits to, carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands”, while Chinese forces could also be used “to protect the safety of Chinese personnel and major projects in Solomon Islands”.
The prime minister of Solomon Islands, Manasseh Sogavare, has sought to allay concerns, saying his country has no intention of allowing a Chinese naval base. But Sogavare has also said it is “very insulting to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs”.
Speaking in Canberra on Wednesday, Berger said the US needed to show humility in its outreach to Pacific nations, but also needed to be open about the potential long-term consequences.
Berger reflected on the fight for control of Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands during the second world war, when the US and allies sought to prevent Japanese forces from gaining a foothold in the strategically important location.
“A lot of things change in warfare. Not geography. Where … Solomon Islands are matters. It did then and it does now,” Berger said at the Australian Strategic Policy
He said the proposed agreement was “just another example” of China seeking to broaden and expand its influence. He raised concerns about “the way that [it] happens and the consequences for the nations” involved.
Sogavare has argued Solomon Islands pursues a “friends to all and enemies to none” foreign policy, but Berger implied countries making agreements with Beijing might regret it down the track.
“We should illuminate, we should draw out into the open what this means long term,” Berger said.
“This is, in other words, an extension of ‘hey we’re here with a cheque, we’re here with money, we’d like to improve your port or your airfield or your bus station’. And that just sounds so great, until a year later or six months later.”
The US plans to reopen its embassy in Solomon Islands, a move the nominee for US ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, has said “can’t come soon enough”.
Berger acknowledged there were limits to US insights in Pacific island countries, so the US needed to rely on allies such as Australia.
“We’re not going to have always the best view, the clearest picture,” he said.
“We have to understand the neighbourhood and we’re never going to understand it as well as Australia.”
Earlier, the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, denied that the US had conveyed any concerns that Australia had dropped the ball in the region.
Morrison said the Australian government was continuing to raise concerns with Solomon Islands without acting in a “heavy-handed” way.
Australia’s minister for the Pacific, Zed Seselja, met with Sogavare in Honiara on Wednesday and “asked Solomon Islands respectfully to consider not signing the agreement” with China.
Seselja suggested Solomon Islands “consult the Pacific family in the spirit of regional openness and transparency”. Australia would work with Solomon Islands “swiftly, transparently and with full respect for its sovereignty”.
“We welcome recent statements from prime minister Sogavare that Australia remains Solomon Islands’ security partner of choice, and his commitment that Solomon Islands will never be used for military bases or other military institutions of foreign powers,” Seselja said.
Sogavare has previously said Solomon Islands welcomed “any country that is willing to support us in our security space”.
But Matthew Wale, the leader of the opposition, has argued the deal “would make the Solomons a geopolitical playing field” and “further threaten the nation’s fragile unity”.
House votes to hold Trump duo Navarro and Scavino in contempt of Congress
The House voted on Wednesday to hold two of Donald Trump’s top advisers – Peter Navarro and Dan Scavino – in criminal contempt of Congress for their months-long refusal to comply with subpoenas issued by the House select committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack.
The approval of the contempt resolution, by a vote of 220 to 203, sets the two Trump aides on the path toward criminal prosecution by the justice department as the panel escalates its inquiry into whether Trump oversaw a criminal conspiracy to overturn the 2020 election.
Congressman Jamie Raskin, a member of the select committee who introduced the contempt resolution to the House floor, said the select committee needed the House to advance the measure in order to reaffirm the consequences for defying the January 6 investigation.
Citing a ruling by a federal judge last week that Trump “likely” committed felonies to return himself to the Oval Office for a second term, Raskin said on the House floor that the panel wanted Navarro and Scavino’s cooperation because they engaged in trying to overthrow an election.
But having refused to comply with their subpoenas in any form, Raskin said that “these two witnesses have acted in contempt of Congress and the American people; we must hold them in contempt of Congress and the American people”.
The contempt citations approved by the House now head to the justice department and the US attorney for the District of Columbia, Matthew Graves, who is required by law to weigh a prosecution and present the matter before a federal grand jury.
Should the justice department secure a conviction against the Trump aides, the consequences could mean up to a year in federal prison, $100,000 in fines, or both – though it would not force their compliance, and pursuing the misdemeanor charge could take months.
The subpoena defiance by Navarro and Scavino meant the select committee was ultimately unable to extract information directly from them about Trump’s unlawful scheme to have then-vice president Mike Pence stop Joe Biden’s election win certification on 6 January.
But the panel has quietly amassed deep knowledge about their roles in the effort to return Trump to office in recent weeks, and senior staff decided that they could move ahead in the inquiry without hearing from the two aides, say sources close to the inquiry.
The determination by the select committee that Navarro and Scavino’s cooperation was no longer essential came when it found it could fill in the gaps from others, the sources said, and led to the decision to break off negotiations for their cooperation.
The final decision to withdraw from talks reflected the panel’s belief that it was not worth the time – the probe is on a time crunch to complete its work before the November midterms – to pursue their testimony for potentially only marginal gain, the sources said.
House investigators had sought cooperation from Navarro, a former Trump senior advisor for trade policy who became enmeshed in the effort to reverse Trump’s election defeat, for around a month until it became apparent they were making no headway.
The select committee issued a subpoena to Navarro since he helped devise – by his own admission on MSNBC and elsewhere – the scheme to have Pence stop Biden’s certification from taking place as part of one Trump “war room” based at the Willard hotel in Washington.
Navarro also worked with the Trump campaign’s legal team to pressure legislators in battleground states win by Biden to decertify the results and instead send Trump slates of electors for certification by Congress at the joint session in January 6.
But when that plan started to go awry, Navarro encouraged then-Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to call political operative Roger Stone to discuss January 6, the panel said in its contempt of Congress report published last week.
The former Trump aide, however, told the select committee – without providing any evidence – that the former president had asserted executive privilege over the contents of his subpoena and would therefore not provide documents or testimony.
With Scavino, the select committee first issued Trump’s former deputy White House chief of staff for communications in September last year, since he had attended several meetings with Trump where election fraud matters were discussed, the panel said.
But after the panel granted to Scavino six extensions that pushed his subpoena deadlines from October 2021 to February 2022, the former Trump aide also told House investigators that he too would not comply with the order because Trump invoked executive privilege.
The select committee rejected those arguments of executive privilege, saying neither Navarro nor Scavino had grounds for entirely defying the subpoenas because either Trump did not formally invoke the protections, or because Biden ultimately waived them.
At the business meeting last week where the select committee voted unanimously to recommend that the full House find Navarro and Scavino in contempt of Congress, Raskin delivered an emotional rebuke of the supposed executive privilege arguments.
“This is America, and there’s no executive privilege here for presidents, much less trained advisors, to plan coups and organize insurrections against the people’s government in the people’s constitution and then to cover up the evidence of their crimes.
“These two men,” Raskin said of Navarro and Scavino, “are in contempt of Congress and we must say, both for their brazen disregard for their duties and for our laws and our institutions.”
Attending an event featuring Trump at Mar-a-Lago on Tuesday night, Navarro made a point of appearing aloof to his impending referral to the justice department. “Oh that vote,” Navarro said dismissively, the Washington Post reported.
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